'A Place in the Sun' ('J'veux du soleil'): Film Review
Cesar award-winning filmmaker Francois Ruffin’s latest documentary, co-directed with Gilles Perret, focuses on the recent wave of social unrest in France.
Ever since the Champs-Elysees descended into a cloud of chaos last December, news reports worldwide have focused on the destruction unleashed by members of the yellow vest (gilet jaune) movement during protests in Paris and the rest of France.
But as the illuminating new documentary A Place in the Sun (J'veux du soleil) reveals, the violence has been carried out by only a small faction of an otherwise large and generally peaceful crusade to improve the lives of French workers, especially those residing in the countryside. And as much as it’s been easy to shun the yellow vests for the havoc they’ve wreaked over the past five months, causing massive roadblocks, delays and millions of euros in property damage, their collective grievances demand our attention.
Co-directed by journalist-activist Francois Ruffin and documentarian Gillet Perret, Sun allows the protestors to speak for themselves, with the filmmakers traveling around the country to meet them in person, recording their propos both at home and on site. The interviews, which are informative and often quite funny, are conducted by Ruffin, who became the closest thing France has to Michael Moore after his anti-LVMH documentary Merci Patron! turned into a box office phenomenon and Cesar Award winner back in 2017.
The yellow vests Ruffin encounters during his journey detail their bleak hand-to-mouth existences, mostly in the provinces, where steady work is hard to come by and monthly bills impossible to pay. And where the French government — especially President Emmanuel Macron, who has become the principal punching bag of the movement — is unable to provide sufficient assistance despite the country’s rather generous social safety net.
One farmer, who worked his entire life and is well into his 60s, struggles to live off of $850 per month in retirement benefits. Another man in his 30s has only been able to find a few temporary jobs over the years, then explains how he hasn’t eaten a meal for the past three days. Elsewhere, a single mother tries to raise her son without knowing how she’ll put food on the table each night — and this despite the fact that she works full-time.
What unites most of these people is the difficulty they face in obtaining sustainable, long-lasting employment and the general feeling that they’ve been left behind by their economy, their country and their president. “You were born in another world and you don’t understand the people,” one of them says to Ruffin, who pretends to be Macron so that the protestors can lodge their complaints directly with the man in charge.
Made on a tiny budget, with Perret operating the camera and Ruffin driving the beat-up production vehicle himself, J’veux du soleil is also a lively and amusing DIY road movie that has the filmmakers crossing France from one blocked roundabout to the next. At each location, they comes across a variety of colorful characters — many of them out-of-work laborers — who have found a new calling in the movement. “There’s lots of emotion,” one of them explains. “We’re like a family here.”
Indeed, you get the feeling that what brings the protestors together is as much the need to better their lives as it is the desire to make connections with others like them, especially at a time when the unemployed tend to stay at home glued to their computer screens, hoping to dig up job opportunities online. One couple recounts how they actually met and fell in love while protesting at a highway tollbooth. And another man explains how the local roadblock has become an unofficial employment office, allowing fellow construction workers to hire one another in person.
If it’s not all that clear how, precisely, the yellow vests plan to improve their situation on an official level — the film presents lots of problems and a lot less solutions; it also never depicts the more problematic sides of the movement — Ruffin and Perret manage to capture a community whose mere existence becomes encouraging in and of itself. Perhaps it’s less about what the protestors may ultimately accomplish than it is about giving some of them a sense of accomplishment, possibly for the first time in their lives. This honest and hopeful documentary shows how much France's underclass wants, and deserves, their place in the sun along with the rest of us.
Production company: Les 400 Clous
Directors: Gilles Perret, Francois Ruffin
Producer: Thibault Lhonneur
Editor: Cecile Dubois